Yi are an ethnic group of Austroasiatic origin living largely in the mountains of southwest China and speaking a Tibeto-Burman language. The Yi people numbered more than 9.8 million in 2020.¹ When the people of China were classified into fifty-six minzu (ethnicities) in the late 1950s, the term Yi, a previously seldom used term, replaced the formerly more common Luoluo, considered extremely pejorative.² They
mainly live in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and in small numbers in Guangxi.³
1 Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China. 2020. “China Statistical Yearbook”, Beijing: China Statistics Press.
2 Harrel, Stevan. 1990. “Ethnicity, Local Interests, and the State: Yi Communities in Southwest China”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 32(3): 515-548.
3 Guoyu, Fang (1984). “Draft history of the Yi”. Kunming: Yunnan Minzu Press.
Mayou village (马游村), Yao’an County (姚安县), Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture (楚雄州), Yunnan Province (云南省). Mayou has a population of 2,223, of whom 95% are Yi. Located among several high mountains, this village is home to two nationally recognized Yi intangible cultural heritage bearers in Meige (梅葛) and Hulusheng (葫芦笙) respectively. Meige is the general name for the Yi’s comprehensive music tradition, including folk songs, dance and oral literature, all of which may be sung to the Meige tune family. The Hulusheng is one of the oldest versions of the Asian free-reed mouth organ, and dates back c.2,500 years. The Yi language is one of very few ethnic languages preserved both in oral and written forms in China, this dating back to over 6,000 years.
Meige, a representative of Yi ethnic folk dance and oral literature, encompasses a wide array of content covering the historical culture and everyday life of the Yi people. It is thus revered as the cultural ‘genealogy’ and ‘encyclopedia’ of the Yi, as well as a lengthy narrative epic. Meige is widely popular in counties like Yao’an, Dayao, and Yongren in the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province. The term ‘Meige’ originates from the Yi language, with ‘Mei’ meaning ‘mouth, sing, speak,’ and ‘Ge’ denoting ‘past, history,’ collectively referring to a song form that recounts historical stories. In Yi communities in areas like Dayao and Yao’an, this song form used for narrating history is known as ‘Meige tune,’ which has gradually evolved into a unique form of narrative singing and a distinctive musical genre among the local Yi people.
The transmission of Meige relies entirely on oral tradition, without any written records. In the late 1950s, the Meige tune was rediscovered and organized for singing the creation history of the Yi people, leading to the compilation of the ‘Meige’ book. This epic, comprising 5775 lines, is divided into four parts: ‘Creation,’ ‘Creation of Objects,’ ‘Marriage and Love Songs,’ and ‘Funerals.’ It vividly depicts the Yi people’s ancient worldview, their rich imagination about various things, and the evolution of their production and lifestyle. With the publication and re-publication of ‘Meige,’ its literary, historical, and ethnological values have increasingly come to light.
In July 2006, the Meige Cultural Protection Area of the Yi people in Mayou Village, Yao’an County, which is the birthplace of Meige, was included in the first batch of intangible cultural heritage protection list by the People’s Government of Yunnan Province. In June 2008, the Yi Meige was listed in the second batch of national intangible cultural heritage protection list by the State Council.
ECura’s collaboration with Mayou village
In February 2023, Dr. Lijuan Qian, the PI of the ECura project, initiated a collaboration with two Meige musicians during her spring fieldwork trip to Yunnan. These two musicians, Rongxiu Luo and Xiaowei Guo, hold positions as the Head of the NGO Meige Studio and the Head of The Centre of Intangible Cultural Transmission, Preservation and Exhibition, Yao’an county, respectively. They have played significant roles in collaborating with ECura project. (Refer to the first group photo on the left: from the left to right, you can see Rongxiu Luo, Xiaowei Guo and Lijuan Qian). This collaboration led to the establishment of the UCC Meige Research Collaborative Work Base in Mayou village, Yao’an county, Chuxiong Yi autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province.
In response to the appeals from Meige Studio and Yi villagers for governmental aid in preserving invaluable intangible cultural heritage of music, Lijuan Qian utilised her social and academic networks. Her efforts successfully secured official collaborations across various governmental levels in Mayou village, Yao’an county, and facilitated academic collaborations with Yunnan Nationalist University. (Refer to the second group photo on the left: Xingfa Bai, Professor at the Yunnan Nationalist University and the President of the Yunnan Association of Yi Studies, came to the Work Base inauguration and jointly unveiled the plaque with Lijuan Qian).
The establishment of this Collaborative Work Base not only received strong support from Meige Studio, Yi musicians and the local villagers from Mayou Village, but also marked a momentous milestone as it signified the first formal collaboration between University College Cork and the academic communities in Yunnan.